10 Apr Black English Exacerbates Racist Practices in Justice System
Black English, which James Baldwin defines as a language separate form White Mainstream English, may pose barriers to justice for many Americans. Linguistics professor April Baker-Bell calls it “linguistic injustice.” Whatever the terminology, speaking Black English during police interviews or jury trials has major effects. Court reporters struggle to transcribe responses accurately. Attorneys exploit supposed confusion to twist testimony and defendant responses. This injustice mirrors ongoing struggles to move away from “standardized English” in academic settings.
Studies show numerous barriers to justice for Black English speakers.
The injustice around speaking Black English in court-related matters garnered attention in 2019. A study released that year highlights how the justice system punishes individuals who use Black English. Since then, though, the conversation has waned. In a justice system that feels like it targets Black communities, the issue warrants more attention.
Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity conducted a study about the effects of Black English in court. More specifically, researchers looked at accuracy in court transcriptions. According to their findings, court transcriptions could not paraphrase what they heard 77% of the time when witnesses used Black English. Moreover, 11% of the transcripts were incomprehensible to researchers. During the course of their research, court reporters illustrated presumptions of guilt with Black defendants. Some also told researchers that they wanted Black English speakers to use “better English” in the courtroom.
Taylor Jones, one of the researchers involved, explains that the issue at play is that court reporters’ transcripts become factual evidence. Though court reports must certify at 95% accuracy, that accuracy refers to transcribing the spoken language of lawyers and judges. When researchers tested accuracy using Black English speech, no transcriptionist reached 95% accuracy. The implication is terrifying. If court reporters cannot understand Black defendants, neither can lawyers or jury members. This presents a massive barrier to justice.
Court reporters show a lack of understanding for Black English syntax.
The full study, published by the Linguistic Society of America, points to alarming confusion. Court reporters receive no training on transcribing Black English. Despite this, some attempt to make corrections. Here are some examples from the study:
- Sentence: “I don’t even be feeling that.”
- Transcription: “I am be filling her.”
- Sentence: “He a delivery man.”
- Transcription: “He’s a leery man.”
- Sentence: “She be talkin’ ’bout ‘why your door always locked?’ “
- Transcription: “She be talking about why you do always lie.”
As these examples show, there is a vast difference between what Black English speakers say and what goes into court records. The connotation of a “leery man” is significant and implies guilt. In contrast, a “delivery man” is simply a service worker. Similarly, a locked door is very different from habitual lying.
The study presents a detailed breakdown of Black English syntax. The goal is to illustrate the shared meanings and rules understood by speakers of Black English and how court transcriptionists miscommunicate their language.
Additionally, the study quotes court reporters who display hostility toward Black English. “The tenses drive me crazy! He be workin’: what does that mean?!” one asked. “He is working? He works? [Or h]e does work? That drives me nuts!” This shows a distinct prejudice against Black English. But it also identifies the level of confusion court transcriptionists have when they encounter Black English.
Ultimately, the researchers conclude that the court system cannot offer justice when the verbatim transcripts inaccurately capture the spoken testimony of witnesses and defendants.
April Baker-Bell raises awareness about the extent of prejudice against Black English.
In her new book, Linguistic Justice, April Baker-Bell highlights how prejudice against Black English perpetuates larger issues of systemic racism. One of the issues, Baker-Bell argues, is that Black English is still not recognized as a language. “Despite there being decades of research on Black language, its survival since enslavement and its linguistic imprint on the nation and globe, Black people … keep having to remind (white) people that it is a legit language,” she explains.
Though her book comes more than fifty years after James Baldwin’s essay on the merits of Black English, she found that most educators do not recognize it.
With regard to the criminal justice system, the denial of Black English as a language means that transcriptionists never receive training in Black English. Thus, they are attempting to record a language they do not speak. In doing so, they misrepresent meaning and skew testimony. This can cause issues during jury trials and for those appealing their convictions. Changing our approach to transcription of Black English could drastically improve racist trends in sentencing and the criminal justice reform as a whole.